The Persian Boy - Mary Renault

Ladymol's Review


This book is as much an experience as it is a novel. The second of Renault’s trilogy on Alexander the Great, this one tells Alexander’s story from the point of view of Bagoas, his Persian lover.

The whole concept of the book is fascinating. It’s one of those novels that so closely blends historical authenticity with authorial license that you can’t separate them. Her historical research is flawless and the book reads as well for students of history as it does for “slash” fans. And I use that term deliberately. There is no hard and fast evidence that Alexander was gay. Sure, the records of the day say that he loved Hephaistion, his Macedonian best friend and Bagoas, but that can be interpreted in many ways. Jane Austen has Darcy making violent love to Elizabeth at one point, but we can rest assured they were both fully dressed, feet on the floor and not an inch of skin touching. Thus Renault took an ambiguous legend and made it her own. Our thinking about Alexander now owes more to her books than it does to primary evidence.

The book is fascinating on so many levels that it’s hard to do it justice in any review. I particularly like the way the book is narrated by Bagoas. Those of you who know Alexander’s story will know that he left Macedonia (northern Greece really) and conquered (amongst many other countries) Persia—what we would call Iran and Iraq. He became increasingly enamoured of Persian ways, to the extent that he lost some of the fanatical loyalty and love that he so uniquely inspired in his Army. Arguably he was eventually poisoned by those who resented his Persian conversion. Many researchers have blamed the shadowy figure of the eunuch Bagoas for this love of all things Persian. This book, told entirely from Bagoas’s point of view, doesn’t contradict this interpretation at all; indeed, Bagoas celebrates what he sees as the barbarian Alexander’s gradual conversation to the pomp, circumstance, decadence, luxury and deceits of the Persian way of life. And where this book transcends the ordinary is in the descriptions of the vastness and wonder of this ancient world. Renault makes you smell the rich perfumes, taste the spices and hear the noise of an army of over a hundred thousand men moving inexorably through these exotic lands. Alexander is the cool, rational, fair-haired northerner with his ideals of democracy and heroism. Bagoas is the dark beauty who seduces Alexander and holds him in thrall. Bagoas wants Alexander to be more kingly – in his view of what this means; for, famously, Bagoas was Darius’s “boy”. Darius the great ruler of Persian is the epitome of decay and wealth and corruption, shown in the novel. 

This is one of those books that will fire your imagination. I went on to research Mary Renault herself, Bagoas from primary evidence and Alexander, of course. As I said at the start, this is so much more than a novel.

If you’ve never tried these books, you are missing a real treat.